HAWAII'S PAPA HE'E NALU LEGENDS
CLARENCE "MAC" MAKI
EDDIE, BUTTONS, DEREK
RICHARD "BUFFALO" KEAULANA
JOHN KELLY Jr.
ROBERT "OLE" OLSON
The Father of Modern Surfing Duke Kahanamoku 1890-1968
and the legendary water photographer Clarence "Mac" Maki 1924-2010
A story told by Clarence Maki after showing Tom Takao how to throw a fish net. Which is an art that takes hand-eye coordination and the knowledge of the reef and its fishes. After half an hour I wasn't able to do it very well, so we went back inside. While I was sitting on his living room couch, he got out his box of photos. He showed me a picture of the Duke riding a wave at Canoe's and explained how it came to be.
It was August 24th, 1954 at Canoes, with 2 frames left after taking water surf photos during his afternoon photo session. "I was just about to get out of the water. Grabbing my water-housing that I had built from the deck of my surfboard, I hear a distinct voice from shore. "Hey Mac, howzit." Looking up, I see my good friend Duke Kahanamoku" Mac said, they had met a few times out in the water before, and when he worked for the City of Honolulu in the Public Works Department, and when the Duke was the Sheriff of Honolulu.
"Oh, Hi Duke" Mac replied. "It's my birthday today, how about taking a picture of me," Duke said. "Sure Duke," Mac said as he turned his board around and paddled back out with Duke. Duke would continue out to the lineup while Mac waited at the area where Duke would be surfing by. The Duke takes off on a small wave and surfs toward where Mac is. He is preparing for the Duke to be in the window of opportunity. In the blink of an eye, Mac has captured the moment. "I will have the film developed in a few days" Mac said as Duke glided by. But, after developing the picture, it was in an article in the Honolulu Advertiser and became world-famous.
BUTTONS KALUHIOKALANI 1958-2013
EDDIE AIKAU 1946-1978
DEREK HO 1964-2020
George Downing Makaha photo LeRoy Grannis George Downing
George Downing 1930-2018
Georgre Downing Story
By Mindy Pennybacker
Hawaii waterman and environmentalist George Downing, celebrated big-wave pioneer, surfboard designer, trusted mentor to generations of surfers and creator of the Quiksilver Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay, died peacefully in his sleep early Monday morning, his son Keone Downing said. He was 87 years old.
“To us that were close to him, George was the greatest surfer that ever lived” said Gerry Lopez, a friend, confidant and champion surfer from a younger generation. “He was really the only one left that spanned pretty much the whole of modern surfing from riding solid wood boards to the foam shortboard”.
Born May 2, 1930, Downing began surfing at age 9 on a solid redwood plank at Waikiki. A paper boy, he bought his first surfboard from a homeowner along his route for $5, agreeing to pay installments of 10 cents a week. “He made it to $4.80 and he still has that board” said Lopez. At age 11, Downing became a beachboy at Waikiki, where he eventually ran beach concessions.
He attended Washington Intermediate and for a time, McKinley High School, but his education came through constant observation of the ocean and asking questions, Keone Downing said. “He learned economics and how to read people from the tourists coming at the time, because beachboys’ survival depended on tips”.
As a teenager George Downing became one of the first to ride Makaha, along with older surfers as Wally Froiseth and Woody Brown; he later won the Makaha International and competed in surf championships in Peru.”I was really fond of him” said famed Makaha waterman and lifelong Downing friend Buffalo Keaulana. As a youngster who didn’t have a surfboard, he would “hang around and caddy the boards” for Downing, Froiseth and Brown. He would body-surf, retrieving their boards when they wiped out and catching a wave or two before giving them back. “I’m gonna miss him”.
In 1985 Downing created the one-day, big wave Quiksilver Invitational. Keone Downing said his father founded the now world famous event “because he didn’t want to do just a surf contest; he wanted something special, and he wanted to do it a certain way”. He served as director of the event and was solely responsible for calling it on or off, for 30 years. Due to his exacting criteria, the contest has been held only nine times.
Downing an innovative board shaper whose Downing Hawaii Surf Shop in Kaimuki has been in business for decades, was also an early member of Save Our Surf, the local grassroots environmental organization and continued to lead its advocacy and educational work after founder John Kelly’s death. “It was Duke Kahanamoku who shared with him that Waikiki is our most precious resource and told him “Keoki, I leave you to take care of Mamala Bay, for she will take care of all of Hawaii” Keone Downing said, noting that his father devoted much of his later life to protecting Waikiki and Mamala Bay as well as other beaches and surf sites throughout the islands.
George grew up with the Duke as one his great mentors, and we and a number of my generation were so fortunate to grow up with George” Lopez said. Downing also will be missed as a father. He taught me how to paddle a canoe. He taught me to surf” Keone Downing said. “He had so much humility and aloha” Lopez said. “The world ‘s gonna be lesser place without his wisdom, his great stories, the love he had not only for surfing, but for all of us, too. A very sweet and generous man”.
George Downing and Wally Froiseth, two legendary Hawaiian watermen. George with surfing and boardbuilding and Wally with surfing and the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Mickey Lake and Joe Kuala at the Inter Island shop
photo courtesy Inter-Island Surfboards
Joe Kuala right side standing Inter-Island Surfboards
JOE KUALA 1943-2011
"The Road to Old Koloa Town"
by Thomas Takao
On the Island of Kauai with a breeze flowing through the landscape of palms, trees, and shrubs. A south swell of 4 to 6 feet was breaking along the south shore. As the waves were tubing along the reefs, I was inside the showroom of the Progressive Expressions Surf Shop in Old Koloa Town. Viewing the wide selection of merchandise and surfboards, I was there to talk to the Hawaiian shaper/glasser whose boards are in the racks.
Joe Kuala walks in from the morning sun, standing in the doorway for a brief moment until he notices me by his longboard that frames the ceiling wall above my head. “How are you Joe,” I said and he replied “Good” with a distinguished smile and a handshake that said welcome. It was good to see Joe again too. The last time we met was at his first shop at 404 Piikoi Street on Oahu many years back. We had talked a couple of times on the phone since. It was around noon so we had lunch and talked about his shop in Old Koloa Town.
And the Hurricane’s Iwa and Iniki, Iwa was nothing to sneeze at, but Iniki was a knockout, she could sweep you off your feet. To have been there when her winds were screaming all around you at 140 mph would be something else. Iniki was the most powerful hurricane to hit the Hawaiian Islands in recorded history. Joe was there and the experience of an hour before, the hour of the eye, and the hour after the hurricane is an experience Joe will never forget.
Something else Joe hasn’t forgotten was his surfing. I asked Joe about his surfing and when he started. It was back in 1957 when he was going to Washington Intermediate School that he took up surfing with his friends. Joe would go surf with Donald Takayama, Raymond Patterson, George “Boogie” Kalama, and Jay Manago to name a few. They would go out at Ala Moana the surf break at the entrance of the newly built Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. Joe enjoyed those days when his friends were the crowd.
Being around surfboards is what Joe wanted to do. His board building history spans the beginning of the foam surfboard designs in Hawaii into the 21st century. To clarify over 40 years in a sentence, let's go back to those days when Joe and a couple of friends were surfing. In 1959 Joe was surfing with Raymond Patterson and Jay Manago at Ala Moana. Ray and Jay were working for George Downing patching boards at the Outrigger Canoe Club.
Raymond mentioned to Joe that he had decided to go to the mainland to work for Hobie Surfboards and George would be in need of someone to take his place. George hired Joe and taught him how to patch boards with fiberglass and resin. The Outrigger Canoe Club was like a magnet attracting locals, tourists, and celebrities. If they were going surfing and needed a surfboard George would let them ride his. The bottom line with that many people out in the water at Waikiki meant dings.
With each repair job in 1960, Joe learned the properties of resin and fiberglass. One day in February 1961 there was an ad in the paper for a surfboard glasser. Joe applied for the job and got it. Joe told George that he got a job glassing surfboards and would be starting soon. George wished Joe well in his new position. Afterward, Joe found out that no one had applied for the job. Back then no one knew what a glasser was. There was only a couple of commercial shop on the island at the time, George Downing’s shop, Velzy’s shop, and the new Inter-island’s shop. Joe walked into the Inter-Island surf shop at 620 Kaka’ako St. in Honolulu and began glassing for Mickey Lake. Mickey was doing the shaping and Joe was doing the glassing in the beginning. The boards had a double layer of 10 oz. on the top and bottom, talk about getting hit in the head with one of those boards.
Those boards were heavy. It took a year or so before they realized that the boards didn’t have to be that heavy and found the lighter the board was the better it performed. The surf spot Kaka’ako on Oahu was near the west end of Kaka'ako Waterfront Park. The park is built on a former landfill which when it was active and was the home to many aggressive black flies that bit the surfers and fishermen. It was named in the 1960s by Joe Kuala who worked nearby in the Inter-Island surf shop. “Flies” was the closest surf site to the shop. In 1963 Joe met Marty who would become his wife and the mother of their 2 girls. Mickey hired her to do the office work. Joe was laminating, Mike Diffenderfer was shaping, Dan Haut and Jim Campbell were glossing and Doug Haut was sanding. There would be others working at Inter-Island like John Kelly Jr., Sparky, Jack Shipley, and others.
Marty remembers when the surf came up she was told to tell so and so that they ran out of resin and tell so and so we didn’t have any sandpaper and tell so and so he had the flu. After telling Marty the excuses everyone would walk out and go surf. Marty says she wanted to go surf too. But she stayed to tell the customer who wanted their boards that Joe ran out of resin, Doug ran out of sandpaper and so and so had the flu. Another well-known shaper first learned to glass by watching Joe.
He would watch for hours through the window that separated the outside sidewalk from the glassing room. The shaper was Craig Sugihara who would later glass for Charlie Galento and would go on to start Town and Country Surf Shop. On another occasion Joe remembers making a surfboard for his friend’s son who was a very young Michael Ho. Inter-Island Surfboards was well known with the locals. Whether you were going or coming back from the surf, the shop was a place to stop by and talk story.
A shaper who didn’t get the recognition that others were receiving was John Kelly Jr. His ideas were ahead of his time. John shaped at Inter-Island and filed a patent on a board design describing the Hydro-plane. A design that had a modified tail and bottom section, where there was an inner and outer outline with the outer tail outline being dished out and blending with the rail contour, approximately 30” inches up the rail line from the tail.
There was a severe change from the inner outline bottom much like a plateau. The tail section had a very pronounced kick. The prototype for tail rockers to come. Joe did all the glassing on those hybrid designs. The tail section was very complicated to glass. The fin design had a heavy rake (curve) and glassing a halo or bead around the Koa fin was difficult. Placed the nose almost on the floor and the tail on the glassing rack, but Joe’s skills proved more than ample for the task.
Joe and Marty were married in 1964. Joe borrowed Mickey’s wedding ring for the ceremony (Mickey had recently been divorced and a young Joe was making ends meet and couldn’t afford to buy a ring). Through the rough times and good times, they have been together. One fond memory Joe has is a signed picture of Duke Kahanamoku that was given to him by the Duke two days before Christmas 1964.
Besides glassing Joe learned how to shape from Mickey Lake and Mike Diffenderfer, Joe is still shaping on the same shaping racks that was at Inter-Island Surf Shop when he started. Then at his shop across the street from Ala Moana Shopping Center. There have been many shapers through the years that have shaped on those racks. Beginning with Mickey Lake, then Mike Diffenderfer, John Kelly, Sparky, Ken Tilton, Dick Catri, and Ben Aipa at Inter-Island. Then those at his other shop on Piikoi St. were Donald Takayama (when he was home for a visit), Wayne Santos, Reno Abellira, Gerry Lopez, Bobby Skalak, and many others.
Mickey Lake sold his shop in 1965 and John Kelly Jr. took over as manager for the new owner. The new owner was paying the payroll but wasn’t paying the bills. One day a representative of Walker Foam showed up on the doorstep demanding payment or he would have the authorities close the door to the shop. All of the employees were dumbfounded by the thought that they were out of a job. Joe and Marty went to work for a company called Surfboards Makaha. Things were busy and needing additional help, Joe went over to his friend Ben Aipa to see if he wanted to shape. After which Ben welcomed his friend’s offer. Joe showed Ben the fundamentals of shaping and Ben took to shaping like an eagle to flight. Glassing on the other hand was not for Ben.
How Ben and Joe met was at Sand Island where they would surf, Joe during his time at Inter-Island and Ben while working for lumber treatment company as a truck driver. At first there was friction between the two, but soon they became good friends and the through the years their friendship has stood the test of time.
After two years the owner of the company didn’t honor the agreement he had made with Joe. So Joe left that company and Ben would also leave and go on to work for Greg Noll’s shop. The next shop Joe worked for was at Surfline. Dick Brewer was shaping and Joe was glassing. That lasted for about 6 months when Joe decided to start his own surfboard shop. In 1970 Joe started Progressive Expressions. Mike Hahn a friend of Joe’s came up with the name. The boards were becoming shorter and the kids were doing radical maneuvers. He was making his boards and glassing a few of Lightning Bolts Surfboards. Bobby Skalak was working for Joe in Honolulu.
In 1972 Joe made the move to Kauai. When Joe started his first shop on Kauai, He had enough materials to make six boards and a case of wax. Marty was making board shorts, walking shorts, swim shorts, and shirts, while Joe made surfboards. Things improved and Joe would continue making the entire board from start to finish until the mid-’80s. Since then Joe had Bruce Pleas do more of the glassing.
Joe and Bruce have been working together for 20 years. The first shop in Old Koloa Town was located a couple doors down from the current shop. After Iniki the occupants of the current shop moved back to the mainland. The shop was vacant for a while before Joe and Marty moved in. The shop had grown through the years and is one of Kauai's better-known surf shops. Joe and Marty sold the shop and Joe would shape and surf before passing away in July of 2011.
Joe Kuala at Old Koloa Town
Joe Kuala at Old Koloa Town
Joe Kuala explaining his balsa shape with
by Thomas Takao
“Hey Ben howzit” I said and Ben looks over and says “Oh howzit “ with a smile. “It's been a while,” says Ben.” Yeah about a year or so” I said. We talked about the 1968 World Surf Contest in Puerto Rico and his trip to Peru after the contest. Then he places a couple of his boards on the showroom rack. While looking at his boards I asked. “Ben when did you start doing the stinger, was it 1972 or 73?”
“Ok, ok let me correct you on this,” says Ben and continued “The word stinger came from the mainland. It was always sting, that’s all it is. I get tired of trying to correct everybody by labeling it as the stinger. (He continues mentioning the development of his idea) It came about because of what the kids were doing on the face of the wave. It all happened ah, when I did the swallow tail first. The thing came in and I did it. Then I went to the mainland to the World Contest in San Diego in 1971 ah 72 it’s the one that Jimmy Blears won.”
“Was he riding one of yours?” I asked. “No Jimmy was on a fish at the time and Nuuhiiwa was in the finals, Ok and Peter Townend and two kids from Hawaii were in it too. Both those kids, I was making their boards at the time. So we were off to the mainland and the US had a surf off for the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, and Hawaii to make the da kine of US team” Ben said lifting one of the boards and placing it in the rack. After doing so, he went on to describe their trip there.
Ben: The surf off was at Oceanside, you know by the jetty. They had a contest going for a day to select the final US team. So every heat that those two kids were in, they would win. Ok, what happened is those two kids made the finals. Larry Bertleman and Michael Ho, they were riding my swallow-tail boards at the time” Ben said as he continued to describe the events that led up to the “Sting”. Right after that day, they chose Larry and Michael for the team. The next day we went to practice and I couldn’t believe what the other guys had done, they chopped their tails. Wow, something happened. The design just caught on (snap of the fingers) by just those two kids. They put the icing and the candles on the cake, and they both made the finals of the Championship.
Those kids, especially Larry at such a young age, he was beyond what the others were doing you know I mean because of a skateboard you know. So when we came home we were surfing Diamond Head by the Lighthouse and I was watching him you know and I told someone to take him home and I walked up the cliff and looked back. Larry was doing this roundhouse almost a figure 8, but somehow it was Ok because it was the board I made him. He threw it so far out, right before he crushed it and straightened it after the cutback (sudden direction change, heavy spray) putting it in a curve and straightening it out so as to put the board into a draw, pushing the tail so deep that the board can make no slide because the fin was so far up.
So I stopped and I watched and said to myself Oh wow. With that thought in mind, I went back to my shop. I was doing my work there putting down a blank and putting Larry’s dimension down from his last board. I drew the outline of the nose and then drew the outline of the tail. I was going to draw the outline of the right side, but I put the template down and I looked at it. Oh, the template fell in. I am looking at the outline and there was my combination for the Sting, oh yeah! I see the forward edge and Oh Shit! There it was the Hydrofoil outline, beside that the Hydrofoil races were on Sunday and it was a Sunday.
So I go down to the races and I talked to a guy. Hey, what is the reason for that, and I talked to 8 different guys and got their opinions about the design and the hydrofoil. It’s about the water and how the foil pivots on the turns when you punch it. Because of the hydrofoil, it releases the back section and settles down on the straightaways. So that’s the reason why the boats would pick up speed yeah. I went back to the shop and put the template on the blank and measured it and I shaped the board. When I shaped it kinda close, I had never done that kinda stuff before. When I cut the deck, it was square so I flatten the area and blended it. Then I took it and got it glassed. Finished the board and got it, Larry. He took it and went back to the Lighthouse. What he did was even more amazing. He was going more, he was going farther, he was going higher, he was going faster.
And where he was going he was stinging the wave. He was just stinging the wave. What we were up, carried us through that. We were doing this on the mainland with Surfing New Image with Donald Takayama. So I got with them and I worked with 2 shapers over there and made my stings there. What happened next was the other businesses were getting into it, yeah. But looking at it, looking at the ads, they were prostituting the idea. They were making it look ugly. They were placing the fin in the wrong place, the bottom contour was wrong, They were chopping it up you know, But it was my design and through Surfing New Image we did a lot of them, we did it for 4 years on the Mainland.
That’s how it went you know. Then MR (Mark Richards), I met him in the San Diego World contest and he was on the Australian Team. He caught my eye, he was walking like a wounded seagull and he was riding a fish board, yeah. So I met the kid up there and we talked, we had dinner at the same place yeah. So we talked and I said, “on his way back he should stop by Hawaii and give me a buzz”. So I picked him up you know and we would go out to the country and surf. That’s how we got to know each other. I made some boards for him. That must have influenced him. Oh yeah, a couple of months before he became World Champion he started shaping his own boards. But when he came to visit, I would show him this and that about shaping.
I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. But the people that were changing surfing were the Bertleman, the Ho, the Dane Kealoha, the MR. Just at the time when things were progressing. The guys in Hawaii you know, before I was making their boards, they were trying to do skateboard stuff and they cannot. So one year I went up to Santa Monica after the World Contest at San Diego. So I met Alan Sarlo and Jeff Ho with Larry (Bertleman) at Malibu and went down to the main street on Lincoln. I was watching these kids being towed behind the back of a car.
It was Alan Sarlo and Dog Town guys, oh Jay Adams. I stopped and asked where Jeff Ho’s shop was and they said around the corner. I went inside to talk with Jeff and I lost Larry, he went skateboarding. It got quiet so I went outside and everybody was watching Larry and what he was doing, laying out sweeps and oh unreal maneuvers, he was amazing. So I hooked up with Jeff Ho and left some of my boards there. It just goes on and on, there's no end. Don’t forget those Dog Town Boys, they were the rebels. The Dog Town Boys rocked. It was a year after when they came over to Hawaii and Larry took them to Uluwatu by Olakai. They all came up there and were watching Larry and in the movie, they shut out Jeff Ho, he was the biggest supporter of those guys. But, he was completely shut out.
Doing the competitive thing, for me was going to the guys, Hey, look at the progression of surfing. You’re not progressing man, if you don’t watch out the Australians are going to pass us, the California guys are going to pass us. So that was my involvement, getting into coaching. When I got into coaching, not knowing that I was coaching Bertleman and those guys. I thought ok, I was coaching the Hawaiian Team in the 72’ World Contest.
During the 80s I got off my label and went to Town and Country. They ventured into the longboard thing and I was the one doing it. Doing about 6,7,8 boards a day. They were all computer cut. I was the first to bring computer blanks into Hawaii. Also during this time, I was coaching the Town and Country Surf Team. Picture this, I was working with Brad Gerlack, Sunny Garcia, and Johnny Boy Gomes. I coached Brad for almost 4 years. Through the years my hallway was nothing but pictures and stuff like dat. After his experiences in the 70’s and ’80s, Ben had some pictures lying around on a chair and we talked about them. After that Ben showed me his shaping room.
Ben: He recalled when he met his good friend Joe Kuala. I was living on Sand Island and had been playing semi-pro football. I got hurt on the job and couldn’t play anymore. So I and my cousin would go body surf and borrow a board and learn to surf. During this time I was working for a lumber company and was their driver. I would take a truckload of lumber to a termite treatment plant on Sand Island that would coat the lumber. The process would take a few hours, so not a person to waste time. I would leave my board at Sand Island and would surf for those few hours that I had to wait. That board was my first, a Mexican-made board called Ten Toes that I bought at Wig Wam Department Store. So I was surfing every day during work. I would see Joe surfing Sand Island too and after a while, we got to know each other. Joe was working at Inter-Island Surfboards and invited me up to the shop. The board I was riding didn’t have the right stuff. So Joe made me a custom board. After getting used to it, I would enter local contests and became one of the top surfers in my age group.
How I got into shaping was through Joe, there was a Wardy shop that was going out of business and Joe bought some blanks for real cheap. He tells me to shape a board with one of those blanks. So I was still working for the lumber company at the time and I called in sick. I would go down to Inter-Island around 7 in the morning, this was back in 1965. I started shaping the board with the help of Joe and by 7 that night I finished it. "Wow, that’s how I got started in shaping". In 1968 I won most of the contests that I was in and got on the Hawaiian Surf Team that went to the World Surf Contest in Puerto Rico. Having come full circle in our discussion, I thanked Ben for his time, and the next time I saw him, I order one of his custom shapes.
Hawaii surf activist John Kelly Jr. 1919-2007
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer
In the days before he died Wednesday, there was much that John M. Kelly Jr. couldn't remember about his storied life: That he invented the hydroplane surfboard and was one of the first surfers to ride the waves at Makaha; That he was a decorated sailor and Juilliard School graduate who wrote books, conducted symphonies and spoke out against nuclear weapons; That he founded a grass-roots environmental group responsible for saving 140 surf sites on O'ahu.
But there was one thing that Kelly, who had Alzheimer's for nearly two decades, could never forget: his love of the ocean. Even just a few months ago, Kelly, lanky and nimble, would swim back and forth in the saltwater pool near his home at Black Point. It was this passion — for the ocean, for human rights, for environmental causes — that people will remember. Kelly passed away quietly and peacefully, his family said, in his bed on Wednesday afternoon, his 64th wedding anniversary. He was 88.
"He was probably the greatest humanitarian I've ever met in my life, and I've looked around," said longtime friend and fellow surfer George Downing, 77. "You couldn't buy John, you know what I mean? And people tried. You just couldn't budge him."
SAVE OUR SURF
Kelly was widely known for two things: surfing and saving surf breaks.
His ocean-based environmental group Save Our Surf, founded in 1961, fought to prevent offshore development around the Islands that would have destroyed reefs, surf sites and other ocean resources. "I can't imagine what this place (Hawai'i) would be without him," Downing said.
At its peak, the group — which consisted of dozens of surfers, ocean-users and environmentalists — staged protests, organized beach cleanups and spread the word using posters and leaflets about development projects that would impact the environment.
These activists helped thwart the state's plans for a proposed reef runway from Wai'alae to Hawai'i Kai, a beach-widening project in Waikiki and evictions of families on Mokauea Island, which later became a historic site.
"He was a pain in the neck sometimes, but I had to admire the guy because he was a leader in protecting and preserving the greatest natural resource we have here," said Bill Paty, 86, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources from 1987 to 1992 and longtime surfer. "He was willing to go to the mat with anybody. ... I tip my hat to him. He kept us on the right track."
Kelly was born on March 3, 1919, in San Francisco, the only child of artist parents.
His father, John Melville Kelly, earned acclaim for his etchings of Islanders and for his designs on the menu covers of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His mother, Katherine Harland, was a noted sculptor.
The family moved to Honolulu in 1926, then built a shingled cottage at Black Point that overlooked the ocean a few years later. Kelly was 9 years old when he got his first surfboard, a 7-foot redwood plank shaped by David Kahanamoku, Duke's brother. Nine years later, in 1937, Kelly had the idea to streamline the tail section of the board he was riding to have more control in bigger waves. He and friend Wally Froiseth took an axe to the rear end of another friend's wide-tailed plank, narrowing the tail section and carving the planing surface into a rounded hull.
The result was a new design called the "hot curl." It's credited as a development that led to the start of big-wave surfing. Not soon after did he find a spot perfect for this new kind of board.
While spear-fishing and camping along the Wai'anae Coast, Kelly discovered the waves at Makaha, which, 10 years later, was the site of Hawai'i's first international surfing meet.
"I remember seeing John surfing at the point at Makaha," said Fred Hemmings, 61, a state senator and former world surfing champ. "There weren't many people surfing out there then. ... And as with most surfers in those days, (Kelly) was iconoclastic. He was a man who definitely did his own thing."
One of the more memorable contributions to surfing — even if it never caught on — was Kelly's hydroplane surfboard, created in 1963. He got a patent on the strange design, which combined the speed of a longboard and the maneuverability of a shortboard in its slightly raised tail section. The hype lasted for a couple of years; now these rare boards are worth more as vintage collectibles than functional surfboards. "It was a crazy board," Hemmings said, laughing. "But it showed some real innovation. Even though it wasn't functional and it never caught on, in a curious way it was illustrative of his character. He was an out-of-the-box thinker, an innovator."
Though Kelly surfed well into his 70s — most often at Black Point — his life wasn't solely defined by his love for the waves. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Kelly earned a bachelor's degree in music from the prestigious Juilliard School in 1950. For years he conducted symphonies and choral groups and served as the director of the music school at Palama Settlement.
"Our parents gave us so many opportunities to experience different kinds of art and music," said his daughter, Kathleen Kelly, 58. "I remember being a little girl, half-awake at these late rehearsals and watching him get these people to sing. ... He was used to getting people to work together, to connect." Kelly was also a decorated sailor who witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, even helping to pull people from the water.
In 1944, Kelly, a skilled free diver, earned a Navy and Marine Corps medal of heroism for voluntarily retrieving submerged torpedoes off Kaho'olawe with just his goggles and a gulp of air. He told a reporter at the Chicago Daily News War Service that "any Islander could have done it." He also wrote books, most notable "Surf and Sea," 304 pages covering nearly every aspect of the sport. It was published in 1965.
Not to mention, he self-printed all the fliers, posters and leaflets for Save Our Surf on an antiquated printing press in his basement that would run all hours of the night.
"I used to sleep in the room above (the basement)," Kathleen Kelly said. "And it would be running until 3 or 4 a.m. Clickety-clack, all night long." Though a World War II veteran, Kelly was an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons, to the point it allegedly cost him his job at Palama Settlement.
In 1959 he served as a delegate to the Fifth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima. He considered it a "privilege and a duty as an ordinary American citizen."
"Good for him that he spoke against that racism, that arrogance, that insanity," said Kathleen Kelly, who inherited her parents' activism and was arrested at a Vietnam protest in 1967.
When she called home from jail, her parents responded, "Good for you," Kathleen Kelly said, laughing. "That's the kind of parents they were," she said.
SURFING FIRST LOVE
Of course, surfing was always Kelly's first love.
For decades, he would jump off Kupikipikio Point, surfboard in tow, and catch waves at Black Point or Browns. As he got older, though, bodyboard replaced surfboard until he ditched them both several years ago. Instead, he would climb down the cliffs, glide into the ocean and swim all the way to Ka'alawai Beach.
His wife, Marion, would walk from their home to the beach with his slippers and a towel. Then they would walk back to Black Point together. "This guy once told me he went for a swim with John, just on his regular swim," Downing said. "And he told me, 'I thought I was going to die. But John didn't blink an eye.' He was special."
About 20 years ago, Kelly was struck on the head by his own surfboard, his daughter said, leading to a decline in his mental capacity. Soon after the accident, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Then, in 1995, he found out he had bladder cancer. Worried that his condition would only worsen, his wife and granddaugther, Corey Smrekar, began collecting and organizing everything, from fliers he had created to newspaper clippings that mentioned him.
In 2004, the Hawaiian Collection of Hamilton Library received a $3,075 grant from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa Diversity and Equity Initiative to digitize posters, fliers and other ephemera from Save Our Surf to preserve this social and environmental movement.
The collection is currently available online.
Had Kelly's condition not deteriorated in recent years, Kathleen Kelly said, he would've been protesting development plans at Kaka'ako and rallying against the Superferry. "He knew that if you stick together and educate the public about what's really going on and speak out, you can have victories," Kathleen Kelly said. "You can win these things that make a difference."